Monday, September 22, 2008

Oldie but Goodie, Vol. 4

Doug just requested this one. It's kind of my college magnum opus. I read this at a college reading and all my friends where there and that's the first time I really felt like a million bucks.

Note: This has remained largely unedited since the day I wrote it; it has errors abound.

"Running in Place"

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. –H.P. Lovecraft

I know a dangerous secret that they don't tell you growing up.

No one wants you to know it, not your teachers and especially not your parents, but there are people out there who are smarter than you. And of course you never find this out until you get to college and they're all in your same class and your high school stardom means nothing anymore when juxtaposed to the most brilliant minds the world can muster.

When people ask me what I'm studying I like to say that my major is Piracy, when they ask what courses I say "Swashbuckling 201", "Cartography 324", and "Methods in Treasure Burying 499". Then they look at me weird and I laugh and say that I'm an English major, matey, but that's just a cover. Truth is I'm really studying in laziness and getting my B.A. in bullshit.

My teacher told me a story just before I laid down for my second nap and it was circling in my head, preventing me from reaching the state of restful sleep I needed to make it through the day. I had a diner dinner date in a little and this mental tossing around wasn't helping. He told us about these little people who live in Indonesia or someplace like that who have these miserable lives and they can't do anything about it because the government doesn't let them and America sucks. Why this was keeping me up I don't think I'll ever know, but the paper that was due in three days on the subject might have had something to do with it. I got up from the bed, tired with being tired and not being able to do anything about it.

My roommate laughed at me as I took the books off the shelf, the dust from their covers filling the light from the desk lamp in the way you see snow falling against a streetlight. I started to write. He had a terrible sense of humor for an art major but when our collective creative juices were flowing we were a force to be reckoned with and we put a good many people in their place. We knew that we were better then them, or at least that's what we told ourselves. We knew that we had a future ahead of us, somewhere, whether it was computer graphics, novel writing, or serving French fries at the diner.

* * * *

The diner was a special place where I took people who I really cared about. It was an escape into a movie, the low hanging chandeliers made of cheap plastic and the tableside jukeboxes never working. But the food was amazing and the waitresses lovely in that down-and-out failure sort of way. I loved them for their perseverance and terrible eye shadow, the excessive rouge on their cheeks getting caught up in their wrinkly face as they smiled at me when I asked for more coffee and a slice of apple pie. They were the epitome of perseverance. It was nice to think about them at home, leading mundane lives with a dead-beat husband and fifteen children running about screaming at each other. It was nice to know that you helped them out with the five dollar tip you left, maybe the kids could get something to eat this week or maybe the abusive dad would get drunk again and add to the brood. Either way, you felt bad for the waitress, even if it was only you imagination playing around. But that's what we do to make ourselves feel better. For all we know, they might be the happiest people on the planet and we're sitting there getting served our grilled cheese feeling sorry not really for them but for ourselves. I love the diner.

* * * *

I was sitting down with an old girlfriend and we were talking about collegiate paper writing and the inherent differences between it, high school level papers, and the upcoming work on a short novella that all writers were destined to pen, the "great American novel" in not so many words. Our stories of survival on the mean streets of suburbia and how we had to fight the constant onslaught of boredom in order to keep our sanity intact, chronicled in a single paperback volume. She said:

"You know what I hate the most about college? Overachievers."

"Oh really? Like those girls who are all pretty with their blonde hair and attractive curves that write fifteen-page-eight-to-ten-page papers and nod and laugh at everything the professor says?"

"That's them."

"Me too."

She then went into how God hates overachievers too and there's no way that they were going to get into Heaven so they should just stop trying now.

"I mean really," she said, "Look at God. He's an underachiever Himself. He did like what, one thing a day? Then He took an entire day off? If He really wanted things to be good He'd have put in that extra day, done a little overtime. Existence is God's senior thesis that he started the night before it was due."

I thought about that for a minute and realized that there was a lot of suffering in the world and that she was right, spot on. He messed up big time, if He even cared at all anymore.

"I have to write a paper about these people in Indonesia or someplace like that who have these miserable…." I went on telling her about this stupid project I didn't care about but my mind was still caught up with suffering and grilled cheese.

* * * *

I got an email from Ibn Mohammed al Farhid asking for help on behalf of his cousin, who was taken prisoner by African mercenaries. He offered me stock in his growing computer software company if I sent him one hundred thousand American dollars and my social security number, in order that he could pay the ransom on his cousin. It came from the same guy who told me that I had won the Irish National Lottery the week before and that he needed my social security number to access my account and transfer the money in.

I felt real empathy for Ibn Mohammed al Farhid and his poor cousin, but more so for the African kidnappers. What could possibly have been so bad that they needed to go from the Sudan all the way to Abu Dhabi and kidnap a poor fourteen-year old girl? Why didn't they just ask for help, I'm sure they would have gotten it, eventually. Then I realized that this was just their cry for help. Ibn Mohammed al Farhid didn't really have a cousin who was kidnapped, but he did have a family to feed and this was how he was doing it, by trying to extort money from me, a distant relative (or so the letter said). Everyone needs to get by somehow. Poor Ibn Mohammed al Farhid, I feel for you in your fallacy, your poor attempt to make me send you money has failed, though you have gained a friend. "Good luck with the kids and I hope your cousin is safe somewhere in the Upper Transvaal or on the shores of Lake Victoria," I sent him in a reply mail, with a made up social security number but no money.

I like to think that maybe she escaped from the kidnappers, Ibn, maybe she's free and roaming the African countryside right now, making her way home and into your waiting arms, expecting a lovely dinner. Maybe she's hiding out from lions and dodging poachers, afraid that the truck with all its flashbulbs snapping like lightening is not a rich wasp family on safari but rather the kidnappers in hot pursuit of their quarry. Run, cousin, run from your salvation! It's not worth going home anyway.

* * * *

The bill came to the table from our beautiful waitress and we left an ample tip, feeling sorry for her. She was nice and I had wanted to know more about her, who her family was, if she was married, where she grew up, stuff like that. I never learned it. We paid the bill at the cashier and got in the car, driving the five minutes in the cold early December night. It was understood that we would not be spending the evening alone.

"So what do you want to do when we get back? I think I have some liquor left over if you're interested," she said, reflecting about last night's extravagancies. "We could break open the bottle of wine my father gave me."

We were twenty so we had to be saddled with what was purchased for us from the old generations who had been here before. The mention of her father made me think that my own father hadn't called in a while and I always worry when he doesn't call. Mom could be expected to and also be expected to talk for hours but if she never handed the phone over to Dad I just didn't know. I wanted to call him right there, my provider. It was almost a sense of duty to the clan that made me have the urge, a pack mentality that I needed to talk to him, something was wrong or he had to tell me something. I told myself that and I believed it.

The smell of Mom's cooking came into my nostrils but it was really the heat from the car being brought up, that warm delightful scent of subtle burning. I hadn't had Mom's cooking in a long time it seemed and I got tremendously homesick. Bah who was I kidding. I hated going home.

"Yeah I'm down for whatever. Let's go back to your house, you know, watch TV, pass out, et cetera. I miss hanging out with you anyway."

* * * *

One of my favorite pastimes is watching horses and lions run at top speed in slow motion on television. I never miss a good episode of Wild Discovery. The way the muscles move in such patterns and shapes is fantastically interesting. It's like they're trying really hard to get somewhere but they go so slow that they never really reach their destination. The rippling flesh pulled taut over the bulging, heavily taxed and toned shoulders, the strong thighs pumping in pursuit or flight. It was beautiful, this encapsulated and quarantined fury of nature. Sometimes, on the shows about lions and cheetahs or tigers, they would catch something unsuspecting like a sick water buffalo or an antelope fawn and there would be a burst of dirt to cover the slaughter which settled about a scene of grotesque beauty - dirt mixed with sweat and blood mixed with fear and triumph and death. If you look real close, you can see Heaven, or at least wherever it is that you go when you kick the bucket, in the eyes of the wildebeest as the lioness' massive jaws squeeze ever tighter around its throat. I'm sure that the same look comes over a guy who trips and falls off his roof hanging Christmas lights and slams his head on the driveway, Heaven and light and red-brown blood. It's always red-brown blood.

* * * *

That night we got drunk and reveled in God's D paper.

* * * *

My hands smelt of latex as the potential children fell from them, sealed in their sheath, into the garbage. The decaying corpse of a Catholic inside me cried while the pragmatist guffawed at God, who didn't seem to care too much, he knew I couldn't care for a child now and he also knew what it was like to be filled with lust and desire. After all, he had humor enough to create hope.

I thought about how I needed to call my father who I hadn't talked to in a long, long time. I needed to know if he at least still cared.

She fell back into the sea of ruined and soiled sheets, our own private pool of youth. Her eyes caught mine briefly as they steadily closed, her will to wake diminishing in the late morning as nap time inched up. I got dressed. My paper was due, regardless of it's half-finished status, and the poor people from Indonesia who would never see the light of an enforced democracy began to rejoice on the other side of the world, content with their fate, their eyes wide in wonder and amazement as they closed shop. I knew of who they were now, but the rest of the world took no notice of them.

Somewhere, a zebra was being eaten by a Middle Eastern girl who had come to live with a pride of lions.


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